FORT CALHOUN, Neb. — The Missouri River has moved in on Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, but it hasn't reached any part of the plant that would compromise the safety of the reactor or spent fuel pool.
The marooned plant poses no immediate threat to public health and safety, the nation's chief nuclear power regulator said after a first-hand look.
“The risk is really very low at this point that anything could go wrong,” Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in Omaha on Monday.
Jaczko toured the idled facility on the west bank of the Missouri River 19 miles north of Omaha to see the flooding at the nation's smallest nuclear power plant. The river has reached more than 2 feet up around the building, and at least 2½ more months of flooding remain.
“It's certainly clear that this is not an issue that's going to go away anytime soon,'' Jaczko said.
Jaczko said all of Fort Calhoun's safety systems appeared to be in place and functioning.
In addition to Jaczko, the Omaha Public Power District took members of the state's congressional delegation and reporters on separate tours of the facility.
“It's important that we be credible,” said Timothy Nellenbach, plant manager. “The floodwaters do continue to pose problems. Maintaining electrical power is the biggest concern for this station.”
That's being take care of, he said.
The plant is again getting its power from the electrical grid after briefly turning to its backup generators Sunday.
In more ways than one, Nellenbach said, this is not going to be a Fukushima.
Fort Calhoun had been shut down long before flooding became a problem, so the reactor core had had time to cool considerably. Workers had plenty of time to prepare emergency equipment and bring in extra fuel for generators. No safety-related equipment has been affected, he said.
“This is a completely different dynamic,” he said.
Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha came away from his tour impressed with the protections in place.
“They took us through all of the buildings, especially the reactor area,” he said. “I'm very confident they have everything under control. It's backed up in a variety of different ways. They would be able to run power under any circumstance; everything's dry inside.”
The OPPD plant went offline more than 11 weeks ago for a scheduled refueling outage. Five weeks ago, plant workers started preparing for floodwaters after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned that the Missouri would soon swamp lowlands along the river.
The plant will remain idle indefinitely, OPPD says.
Gary Gates, OPPD's president and chief executive officer, said the plant has not sustained major damage from the flooding. He said that it will take some time to clean up after floodwaters recede and that workers must finish the refueling work begun in April.
Additionally, federal regulators are planning a series of inspections before the plant can go back online.
However, Gates said OPPD already is forming a team to prepare for resumption of operations at Fort Calhoun.
If all goes well, the plant should be back online within weeks after floodwaters recede. He said he could not speculate on the cost but said it shouldn't be in the “tens of millions of dollars.”
To avoid affecting rates, OPPD is cutting and delaying expenses — $9 million so far. It also anticipates significant reimbursement from the federal government and will turn to insurance, too.
Jaczko said the walk-through at Fort Calhoun allowed him to see for himself what he had only observed in photographs and video images.
“I don't think you can appreciate a flood like this and the force and power of the water until you see it up close,'' he said. “When you get down close and really see the flow, you recognize that this is not a trivial thing.”
He said photos don't depict the reality of the work completed and under way to protect the public.
The Sunday collapse of an inflatable berm erected around key buildings at the plant may appear at first to be a significant development, but it changed nothing in Fort Calhoun's flood fight, Jaczko said.
The berm was not a regulator-approved device and had nothing to do with keeping the plant safe, he said.
“It was a backup to a backup,'' he said.
The device could be reinstalled by the middle of next week, an NRC spokesman said.
Jaczko said the plant's actual safety features are in place: floodgates on buildings, diesel generators placed in hardened structures and fuel oil tanks designed to ensure a continuous flow of diesel under high water levels.
Jaczko and Col. Robert Ruch, commander of the Corps of Engineers' Omaha District, toured the flooded valley by helicopter. Jaczko said Fort Calhoun's flood defenses are designed to withstand floodwaters 8 feet deeper than its current level.
Reaching that depth is highly unlikely, he said.
Jaczko stressed that OPPD faces tough challenges that the flooding only makes worse. Fort Calhoun came under additional NRC oversight and inspection two years ago to improve its flood planning and safety preparation.
“It's good to see that they have made improvements and progress in that area,'' he said.
He said the commission would continue to look over OPPD's shoulder as the flood fight continues.
“You seem to be preparing yourself to deal with those challenges, and that's good to see,” he said. “In the end, the challenge is yours.''
World-Herald staff writers Juan Perez Jr. and Christopher Burbach contributed to this report.
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Video: Aerial views Monday of Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant
Video: Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman's visit